Context Florence Review – Think Outside the Classroom! Try a Walking Seminar!


One of many magnificent spaces in the Uffizi

Our tour—our day!—was so perfect, I just want to set the stage and take you to the Uffizi Gallery with us.

The Rivoire Restaurant patio

We began with a lovely, leisurely lunch on the patio of the Rivoire restaurant on the Piazza della Signori basking in the Tuscan sun.

The Piazza Della Signori

Formerly the center of government, still the pulse of the city, the piazza is teaming with activity. Michelangelo’s “practice” version of this masterpiece, David, stands in the piazza, along with many other statues.

But the final version makes its home under its very own dome in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

Michelangelo's David

Donatello, who was the best sculptor before Michelangelo, created a bronze statue of David.   What a startling difference!

Donatelli's David

When I commented to Monica that I was surprised at the crowds, she said that actually these crowds weren’t too bad but we had arrived during Culture Week and all the museums we free. Thus the incredible long lines and large number of Italian children on guided tours. I’m betting that when American children hear the names Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello, they’ll think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not the foremost artists of the Italian Renaissance. But I’ll leave that story to Jay Leno.

We were astonished by Monica’s solid credentials, delighted by her warmth, wit and charm.  We were expecting a highly-qualified docent, but she totally exceeded our expectations.

Context Travel a network of architects, historians, and art historians who organize walking seminars for intellectually curious travelers in the world's cultural capitals. I'm already planning our next vacation at a city Context Travel serves.

Monica Shenouda, PhD

And the best part? Context Travel limits the size of its tours to 6-8 people.   The five of us had Dr. Monica all to ourselves.  

Our group with Monica minus two who were shopping

Critically-acclaimed New York set designer Richard Hoover asked fascinating questions about perspective and choice of media which added much to the conversation.   Because our group was so small, we were able to benefit from Richard’s expertise as well at Monica’s. That would have been quite difficult in a large group. We could all see and hear well, could ask our own questions, and make our own comments. It was spontaneous and natural.

Since the Annunciation was such a popular religious theme, it was an excellent way to see the renaissance expressed in art. The Annunciation literally morphed before our eyes.

Notice how flat this medieval painting, by Simone Martini, appears.   Mary isn’t beautiful or even realistic, but she sure is pure!   The work is not only laden with images of purity, the angel’s greeting, “Ave gratia plena,” is spelled out right on the painting.   By the way, notice how pleased Mary isn’t! And why is she hiding that book?  

Simone Martini's Annunciation

And now, for the Renaissance version by Leonardo da Vinci. Gabriel, the archangel, enters the room in joyful haste and kneels on one knee. One hand is raised to salute her, the other draped over his bent knee. Mary’s relaxed, though surprised and curious.   She too is reading.   Notice the beautiful landscape Leonardo places in the background. The feeling is spacious, generous, and joyful. From this encounter, I can imagine Mary singing the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”

Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation

Of course, the Nativity was also popular. Here’s Raphael’s painting of the Holy Family shows Joseph as an old man, personifying him as a connection to the Hebrew Bible. Thanks to Monica, this important detail was not lost on us.

Raphael's Nativity

But the Renaissance was a return to humanism, too. The painting of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca is an excellent demonstration of perspective and the influence of rich patroni. The duke was missing an eye, so a profile was chosen for their official portrait.

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino

No story on the Renaissance would be complete without mention its purest expression of beauty, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, or “Venus on the half-shell,” as many tourists call it. Venus’ nudity is sensual but natural, almost innocent.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus

Now compare Botticelli’s Venus to Titian’s.   Does she send a different message, or what?

Titian's Birth of Venus

After our tour, we stopped at a little bar and had a drink.   It was lovely to relax and learn more about Monica and Richard.   Since Monica now lives in the Florence area, she was able to suggest a nice restaurant for dinner and other suggestions for the remainder of our stay.

My only regret?   That we didn’t ask Context Florence to plan our whole vacation. It has colored our memories of this spectacular city, converted my husband to a lover of Renaissance art and made our vacation truly special.   It was the highlight of our trip.

To read about other aspects of our trip such as our experience with the volcanic ash cloud, click here.

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